“I’ve just heard that he misbehaved himself with the women”

What was it that James Randi said about Michael Shermer? Oh yes…

Shermer’s reputation really does precede him, and it predates the recent wave of attention given to sex crimes and sexual harassment. I reached the movement’s grand old man, 86-year-old James Randi, by telephone, at his house in Florida. Randi is no longer involved in his foundation’s daily operations, but he remains its chair, and he is a legend of the movement, famously not fooled by anybody. He seems not to be naïve about Shermer — although he’s not so troubled by him, either.

“Shermer has been a bad boy on occasion — I do know that,” Randi told me. “I have told him that if I get many more complaints from people I have reason to believe, that I am going to have to limit his attendance at the conference.

“His reply,” Randi continued, “is he had a bit too much to drink and he doesn’t remember. I don’t know — I’ve never been drunk in my life. It’s an unfortunate thing … I haven’t seen him doing that. But I get the word from people in the organization that he has to be under better control. If he had gotten violent, I’d have him out of there immediately. I’ve just heard that he misbehaved himself with the women, which I guess is what men do when they are drunk.”

Shermer has just been added to the lineup at this year’s TAM.

I have friends who bought non-refundable plane tickets and booked hotel rooms on the understanding that Shermer was not on the roster at this year’s TAM. They are not happy.

But hey, no biggy. He never got violent.

What Pamela Gay said

Pamela Gay has posted the text of her instantly-famous TAM talk – and oh man is it a stemwinder.

She starts with the bullied school bus monitor, and the people who changed her life in response. She moves on to the 5th grader forbidden to give his winning speech on same-sex marriage, and the internet outcry that made the principal feel compelled to let the student give his speech after all.

She moves on to people getting together to do good things, like “the Virtual Star Parties that my dear friend Fraser Cain hosts and that I and many others participate in.” She talks about hope and despair, dreamers and trolls. [Read more…]

Report all the things

You’ve probably seen DJ’s comment at Skepchick, if you’ve been following this, and you’ve probably seen Stephanie’s excellent analysis of it today. I just want to say a couple of things – which probably duplicate things Stephanie and others have said, but never mind.


let me say how sincerely and deeply regretful I am that I blamed you as the messenger. No woman – no person – should ever be blamed for being a victim or for speaking out about sexism or any social problem. I was wrong to write anything that could even be construed that way, and it was never my intent. I am sorry.

How could it never have been his intent? What does he mean “could even be construed that way”? He said

I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of sexism in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe, and I find that unfortunate.

And when Rebecca pressed him for specifics, he replied

Rebecca: Off the top of my head, your quote in USA Today might suggest that the freethought or skeptics movements are unsafe for women. This is from the article:

“I thought it was a safe space,” Watson said of the freethought community. “The biggest lesson I have learned over the years is that it is not a safe space. . . ”


So how could it possibly not have been his intent to blame women, and specifically Rebecca, for speaking out about sexism? There is no other way to “construe” what he said.


Talking about sexism isn’t the problem, sexism is the problem — I completely agree. But when trying to solve the problem, I believe reporting instances of being groped or grabbed (these may be criminal acts) to be the most effective way to help organizers make sure events are safe for everyone.

But what if the groping happened where no one else saw? What about non-contact harassment? What about misogynist slurs as opposed to groping or grabbing?

One, groping and grabbing is far from all there is to harassment, or a hostile climate. Two, reporting is fraught with difficulty unless there are multiple witnesses, which there usually aren’t. And irony of ironies, DJ’s complaint about women skeptics demonstrates exactly how and why reporting is fraught with difficulty. It all goes around in a circle, so his urging women to report all the things is just a sour joke. Oh right, we’ll do that, so that you can scold us some more.

This is all very obvious, and yet there are people who think it isn’t, so I say it one more time.

Reporting harassment and naming names

Maybe we can make a little progress here.

DJ Grothe has a comment on his Facebook wall (I don’t know if it’s public or not), replying to this comment:

I wish you could see, DJ, how a different frame would improve your position. Don’t say that the talk is causing a problem, say that the talk has increased the JREF’s desire to continue making TAM a safe and fun place for women.

D.J. Grothe: I certainly agree, and don’t believe any conversation about sexism is the problem — sexism is the problem. But there may be disagreement about the best ways to combat that problem. I favor direct communication and reporting harassment and naming names (such helps organizers remove offenders etc). And I remain optimistic that people of good will can disagree on such strategic issues and continue working in common cause.

Ok; this is one place where the gears start to grind, and maybe further discussion will help us make a little progress. (That’s what we want, right? Not Deep Rifts!! but explanation and better understanding. Right? But of course.)

Here’s the problem: it’s not that easy. It’s sooooooo not that easy.

Reporting sexual harassment (hereafter SH) is not easy – and by not easy I don’t mean it’s a nuisance, or difficult the way learning a new language is, I mean there are inherent problems and obstacles and penalties that make it all but impossible in most cases. I’ve just been chatting with some UK friends on Twitter about it, and they all instantly produced examples from their own experience.

  1. SH is by its nature covert. People usually don’t do it in crowded rooms full of witnesses, although sometimes they do, as Ashley Miller has been telling us.
  2. SH by its nature doesn’t leave evidence, unless it ends in rape.

1 and 2 all by themselves are enough to show that reporting and naming names are not always going to be even possible, let alone easy. Then there are all the other problems – it’s a friend, it’s a boss, it’s a colleague, it’s someone super-important or famous or money-giving or otherwise of value to the organization you work for; it’s a neighbor, a landlord, a relative, a friend’s relative.

Then there’s the “I’m a skeptic!” problem. On the one hand you have 1 and 2, and on the other hand you have people saying “I’m a skeptic, where’s your evidence?” People are saying this about SH among the atheists and skeptics right now, often with venom and malice and cunty epithets. So that’s another obstacle, innit. On the one hand women should report it and name names, on the other hand I’m a skeptic and where’s your evidence.

DJ, this is a problem. It’s a structural problem within skepticism. That’s not your fault or our fault (we women who have been talking about it lately), it’s just a problem. On the other hand when you blame us for talking about it in general terms instead of reporting it and naming names, well that much is your doing.